3939Re: numbering the psalms
- Jan 19, 2013First an informational question: are you, Bill, the one who made the
original inquiry? I ask because this is not clear owing to the differing
e-mail address used in the last couple of postings. It would be helpful to
me to know whether I am communicating with the original question's poser,
or with someone else who shares an interest.
On Sat, 19 Jan 2013, dr.beel wrote:
> I am trying to account for the ubiquitous ancient Christian practice of
> referring to the psalms by number in contrast with the utter absence of
> ordinal reference to the psalms among ancient Jews.
Thank you for clarifying further the nature of your inquiry. I am
beginning to understand better the specific character of your query, which
is interesting. I hope Joel, who wrote his dissertation on number
symbolism in patristic thought--I think with specific reference to
Evagrius of Pontus--may have some input on this matter as well.
I will also see if I can get Dr. Georgi Parpulov, who has done in-depth
research on the Byzantine Psalters, involved in this discussion. He is not
a list member, but I have conducted an e-mail correspondence with him in
the past and so can contact him to solicit his input. This seems a matter
which might interest him.
I will respond to parts of your response in this note, and others likely
in some future note.
> I think you may be right in suggesting that the Christian practice
> resulted from several cultural influences. We might consider the
> well-established Greek scribal practice of numbering sections of
> literary works. Christians from the educated classes of Greco-Roman
> society were familiar with the lyric epic tradition commonly featuring
> numbered sections; it may be that the psalms were viewed as the
> Christian lyric counterpart, complete with the gnomic values such
> literature offered, and so the psalms took on numbers like the numbered
> sections of Homer and Menander.
About all I can say here is that these are interesting observations. I
have not researched the lyric epic tradition in any depth, having only
touched on it very superficially in my dissertation (which dealt with the
Biblical Odes tradition). Do you see any significance that may be peculiar
to the Christian tradition in the number 150?
> In any event, you asked some questions, James, and here are my replies
> for your consideration. You asked, "Can you point to some Jewish
> liturgical manuscript from the period that lacks numbering?" Yes. All of
> them. No machzor or siddur MS that I know of numbers any biblical psalm
> despite the fact that psalms and portions of psalms comprise a good deal
> of the content found in them. The earliest Hebrew psalter MSS also lack
> numbers for the psalms. The earliest rabbinic sources lack numbers for
> the psalms. Psalm-numbering is absent from the Jewish commentary
> tradition altogether until later midrashim, and makes its first
> appearance within an actual psalms MS only in the 11th century. It is on
> the basis of its utter absence from the body of evidence that I submit
> that during Antiquity Jewish liturgical use of the psalms did not
> include ordinal (numbered) reference to them.
All the materials you reference are fairly late if I'm not mistaken, i.e.,
they post-date the rise and flourishing of Christianity; correct? I know
that the earliest rabbinic sources are thought to offer witness to much
earlier practice and custom. But the era in which they were put to writing
is probably no earlier than about 200 C.E., correct? I ask because, if
that is the case, then it seems to me that, strictly speaking, we are
discussing Jewish worship of the centuries C.E.; inferences can be made as
to earlier worship practices, but they remain just that--inferences.
Now, if we are speaking of Jewish worship from the era in which this
material was reduced to writing, then must we not allow the possibility
that these sources convey a tradition that is, to some degree, in reaction
against Christian practice (and its possible use of numeration)? In other
words, Judaism in this era is attempting to distinguish itself as starkly
as is possible from the novel sect that claimed to arise from it.
This is an argument from silence and does not go very far toward
conclusively proving anything. And, not being in any sense expert in
Jewish worship practices in any era, I may be making some fundamental
conceptual errors. It may, nonetheless, be worth considering.
> You asked, "what do you make of the navigational materials, especially
> the Epistle to Marcellinus and the "Canon of Psalms" prefaced at the
> beginning [of A]?" The Eusebian Psalms-canon simply lists the hypothesis
> to each numbered psalm. I see nothing there particularly liturgical.
> Your mention of the Epistle to Marcellinus actually demonstrates my
> point: Athanasius constantly refers to psalms by their numbers, but in
> no instance is the reference to anything liturgical; instead Athanasius
> is recommending personal devotional application as therapy for the soul.
I would disagree regarding the "Canon of Psalms" section and I believe you
are mischaracterizing it. That section is, to my understanding, patently
liturgical, or at least devotional. It enshrines a monastic worship
practice--not clearly communal, which is why I say it may be
devotional--such as that practiced by monks in 4th century lower Egypt
(Robert Taft discusses this monastic practice in his "Liturgy of the
Hours," though he does not associate it with the referenced section from
Codex A: so far as I know I am the only one who has thus far made that
association). Perhaps you are confusing the "Canons of Psalms" with the
Hypothesis of Psalms, which is a separate part of the preface? I recently
photographed the pseudo-facsimile of Codex A (Baber) and can upload a
photo of the column in question for your inspection, if you'd like: I
would be happy to be proved wrong if I have somehow misconstrued it.
> might have been known and used for these, too?" If you are talking about
> the psalms-division into five books, this is not peculiar to Christian
> psalters; as you know, it is found also in Hebrew psalters yet with no
> liturgical function attributed to it anywhere in the Jewish tradition.
> What, then, makes it liturgical in the Christian Bible? If you are
> talking about division into discrete psalms, obviously this is true also
> of the Hebrew psalter, and again without any liturgical function
> attached to it in any Jewish source from antiquity. Same question
> applies: what makes the numbering of discrete psalms a liturgical
A question (as much for me as for you): when we use the term "liturgical"
in reference to Jewish worship, are we speaking of communal worship as
opposed to individual prayer (for the latter of which we would, instead,
use the referent "devotional")? I admit to some fundamental unclarity on
my part in this discussion regarding these terms. The elephant in the room
here with respect to Jewish worship is whether what is done in synagogues
since about 70 C.E.--which I understand to be a barely adequate stand-in
for what was formerly done in the Temple--really qualifies as liturgical.
If that question be answered in the positive, then we approach comparing
apples with apples with regard to the question of the presence or absence
of Psalm numbering and its liturgical applicability in Christianity and
Judaism. If answered in the negative, the comparison may well be
In summary, it seems you would maintain that Psalm numeration is of a
non-liturgical origin, and that the already-existing numeration was later
(by the 4th century, as I am maintaining) adapted into liturgical use,
correct? You seem to allow that the numeration played a role in worship,
but you are inclined to search elsewhere for its origin, yes?
> I am grateful for this exchange over the question of individual
> psalm-numbering. I hope to learn more from it.
Ditto. I did some research recently in preparation for writing an
introduction to a Psalter and reviewed a bit of historical development, so
it's still a subject fairly fresh in my mind. Hopefully I can continue to
contribute and learn as well.
By the way, have you looked at the Psalms of Solomon to see whether they
might shed any light on your numeration query? I can't point to anything
specific regarding them apart from the fact that they can be viewed as
perhaps transitional between Judaism and Christianity.
> --- In firstname.lastname@example.org, James Miller wrote:
>> On Fri, 18 Jan 2013, dr.beel wrote:
>>> The liturgical-practice-explanation is persuasive only on the assumption that numbering the psalms is a practice that liturgical recitation and chanting of them makes necessary. But we know this isn't the case, because the chanting and singing of these same psalms in Jewish worship during antiquity doesn't seem to have required numbering them. If ancient Christians found it necessary to number the psalms in order to find their place in the liturgy, why didn't ancient Jews?
>>> And: indeed the imperial codices like Sinaiticus include a 151st psalm, but with the superscription carefully pointing out that this psalm is "outside the numbering (arithmou)." Here again it is only in a Christian MS, not a Jewish one, that the psalter is even referred to in terms of numbering its chapters. For both communities the psalms were central to liturgical life, yet only one of them numbered the psalms. Does Christian liturgical use fully explain this phenomonenon?
>> Some questions for you, Bill. First, what is the evidence upon which your
>> assertion that "the chanting and singing of these same psalms in Jewish
>> worship during antiquity doesn't seem to have required numbering them" is
>> based? Can you point to some Jewish liturgical manuscript from the period
>> that lacks numbering? Some ancient testimonial about how Jewish worship
>> was conducted that rules out such? I am curious to know that first of all,
>> since such a dearth of evidence about worship practices of the period
>> seems to me to obtain.
>> Furthermore, surely you are aware that the Hebrew Psalms readily divide,
>> by internal indications, into 5 sections? The later chapter divisions
>> coincide, in relevant areas, by the way, with those divisions. The
>> diapsalma of the LXX Psalms--which sometimes correspond to a "selah" in
>> the Hebrew text--could also be mentioned as other possible division
>> points. Would you maintain that none of these larger-scale division
>> schemes had any sort of liturgical significance? If so, on what basis?
>> So, in answer to the question "If ancient Christians found it necessary to
>> number the psalms in order to find their place in the liturgy, why didn't
>> ancient Jews?" I would ask: how do we know they didn't just have a
>> differing numbering system for Psalms? One that involved, at the least, 5
>> The more important question I have for you is whether you've ever
>> considered carefully the Psalms complex in the fifth-century imperial
>> codex A(lexandrinus)? If so, what do you make of the navigational
>> materials, especially the Epistle to Marcellinus and the "Canon of Psalms"
>> prefaced at the beginning? The clear purpose of both, it seems to me, is
>> to direct the worshiper in finding the relevant portions for various
>> devotional uses.
>> Do you think those were composed contemporaneously? The Letter to
>> Marcellinus seems to date to the 4th century, so at least that part of the
>> complex certainly predates Codex A. Then again, another part of the
>> complex, the Hypothesis, has been attributed to the 4th century churchman
>> Eusebius. Moreover, Codex A's Psalm divisions, so far as I am aware, match
>> the divisions found in Codices S and B, which both date to the 4th
>> century. Why would we, then, not interpret those earlier Psalm books in
>> light of the more expanded one found in Codex A, assuming that all were
>> liturgical in character? And why not assume that similar navigational
>> texts, though not included in those manuscripts, might have been known and
>> used for these, too?
>> Granted, this does not provide irrefutable proof that the referenced
>> divisions and numbering were introduced for liturgical purposes. But it
>> does give strong indication that, by the 4th century, the divisions served
>> a liturgical or devotional function. And we have certainly not ruled out
>> the possibility that the divisions were introduced for liturgical or
>> devotional purposes--either the divisions seen in Christian manuscripts,
>> or those inhering in the Hebrew text of the Psalms.
>> I would be happy to learn more about this matter, so if you have further
>> evidence to present, please do so. I do not maintain, by the way, that
>> other factors could not help to explain the Christian numbering of Psalms.
>> But I do think that dismissing the possibility of a liturgical or
>> devotional role in the process is wrong. I cannot tell for certain if
>> that's what you're trying to do.
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